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Habit Forming:  Infusing Possibility into Personal and Policy Resolutions, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Jan

As many of you recognize, a ritual element of our recently-concluded New Year’s celebrations involves the making of personal “resolutions,” not quite like the UN’s resolutions except perhaps in the extent to which too little in the world actually changes as the result of most of them.

Indeed, few are capable of making groundbreaking modifications in personal or professional contexts, in part because so little around any of us is either committed to or encouraging of that level of change.

The pious proclamations of the New Year are largely betrayed by a too-comfortable sameness; after the holidays, most of us return to the same jobs, engage the same relationships, reside in the same places, indulge the same media.   Moreover, most of the “changes” we allegedly seek in the New Year are largely personal in nature — about spending habits and weight loss and other matters that are of little consequence to any but those in our tightest social circles.

Although we like to think of ourselves as our own “definers” – often accompanied by the hope that our personal branding will obscure some of the downsides of our behavioral routines – we cannot escape the fact that we are what we practice in the world.  We are, to quote an old American football coach, “what our record says we are.”  Thus, if we wish to be different in any sense other than in a rhetorical one, we have to commit to changing our “record,” which means changing our practice, upping our game and then sustaining its demands.

The good news is that repeated, thoughtful, intentional practice does accrue tangible benefits; indeed neuroscientists have chronicled the degree to which people can actually change brain patterns for the better through determined pursuit of productive skills and habits. We can indeed become more like the people (or societies) we sometimes imagine we already are, but there are no shortcuts to this “promised land,” no products to purchase that will shave time off fulfilling the challenges of habit change.

As 2016 unfolds at the UN there are circumstances that signal opportunities to set and maintain a different course – new members on the Security Council, new diplomatic energies in member state missions, the launching of ambitious 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a revitalized Economic and Social Council, new commitments to inclusion for often marginalized persons, a concern for largely neglected but critically important vocations such as agriculture, and much more.

Here as elsewhere, this context is as important as it relative, providing opportunities to seize or squander based on the intensity and constancy of our practice.  If we are collectively resolute about making the most of the opportunities and obligations given to us this year, sustaining and growing “records” of progress on security, development and climate implementation that become as familiar to us as our personal morning routines, then (and only then) there are reasonable prospects for achieving our most urgent policy objectives, including eliminating poverty, ending mass atrocities and healing our ailing planet.

But if we don’t “put in the time,” we will not ever see the results that so many people are desperate for.  Moreover, we will demonstrate once again our deference to an outmoded, non-scientific and even non-spiritual principle to the effect that that if we have well-researched ideas, the “right” intentions and relevant negotiated agreements, the world will inevitably change.

All those elements indeed matter, but they don’t matter enough.  (Or as we might say in philosophy, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions.) We need to establish contexts for change, and we have often done so admirably in recent years. But we also need to demonstrate plainly the hopeful, energetic resolve that can attract new stakeholders to the work while encouraging persons near and far to abandon some of the innumerable, addictive distractions of modern culture — and then set out on a healthier, more intentional path. Only then can the urgent implementation on security, climate and development for which all of us are now responsible be something more than episodic, cosmetic and unsustainable.

Habit change is essential to sustainable global healing, but it also takes time and we don’t have a lot of that now.  2016 needs to be the year that we fully reap the opportunities derived from the contexts that have been recently and carefully crafted at the UN and other international organizations.  Such resolve must be based on an awareness that political consensus and New Year’s resolutions make worthy pre-conditions for thoughtful and determined practice, but are in no way a substitute for it.

Here’s to a New Year for the international community characterized by that most challenging and necessary of attainments – urgent and thoughtful policy resolve.